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A Place of One’s (Work’s) Own

A Place of One’s (Work’s) Own

A Place of One's (Work's) Own

    I’m moving this month, and one of the things I’m looking for in a new apartment, even though I live alone, is a second bedroom where I can put up an office. My current place is a small 1-bedroom, and while there is a little computer “nook” in one corner of the living room, it’s just not working for me.

    I’d noticed my productivity falling off soon after I moved in, but having just gone through a break-up, I assumed it was just normal post-relationship trauma and that it would bounce back once I got back on my feet.

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    It hasn’t.

    For a long time I told myself I was just unusually busy, but that’s not it – my workload hasn’t increased. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that I’ve realized: I felt busier than usual because I wasn’t getting as much done. Where I used to be on schedule, or even ahead, with most of my work, I’ve been rushing to finish things at the last minute, which has kept me perpetually on the cusp of being behind, and occasionally good and fully late.

    One of the biggest factors in all this is not having a clearly defined workspace. My apartment is simply too small – I’ve been here 10 months and I’ve still got a wall of boxes that I haven’t been able to unpack! But the worst part is that I’ve ended up using the same small space to eat, work, and relax in. And that’s simply no good.

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    Here’s the thing: when you live and work in the same place, both living and working suffer. When you’re just trying to relax – say, by watching a movie or reading on the couch – your work-life is still there. And when you’re trying to get some work done, your daily life is all around you – the stack of magazines under the coffee table, the TV, the stereo, the book you’re reading draped over the sofa arm.

    We get conditioned by certain places. Sitting down in an upright chair at a desk primes us to work; sinking into a sofa tells the body that it’s time to relax. When we mix the two – I’ve been working on the sofa a lot with my laptop – the signals get crossed, and the mind  tries to go in two ways at once.

    So, for instance, last month I taught an evening class four nights a week at the community college. I’d get home at around 9:30 or 10:00 pm and pick up my book or switch on the TV. But every night, this little knot of tension would rise up in my chest, this anxious feeling that I was forgetting something, that I was slacking off. In the daytime, when I was actually working, I’d keep getting drowsy, or my mind would wander, or I’d be tempted to check the TV – you know, just to see.

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    This isn’t a quirk of my personality. Well, not just a quirk of my personality. Psychologists have found consistently that environmental cues can trigger certain states of mind in us, making us work harder or move more slowly.

    In a study at Stanford, for instance, a group of subjects was primed with objects related to business and office life (like boardroom tables and briefcases) while a control group was primed with neutral objects (kites, toothbrushes). Tests performed after the priming showed that those whose minds had been directed towards business became more competitive and less cooperative than those whose priming was not business-oriented.

    In practical terms, that means that just seeing the accoutrements of business life can make us more competitive – which is good, since usually when we’re around such objects we’re in the business world where we need to be more competitive.

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    Priming can have all sorts of odd effects. It can make young people move more slowly (after unscrambling sentences containing words like “Florida”, “wrinkled”, and “gray”); it can make people more likely to clean up after themselves (in a room scented with cleaning fluid); it can even make us smarter (students asked to picture themselves as a professor scored higher on a cognitive tests than students asked to picture themselves as a soccer hooligan)!

    So what cues are priming me when I sit down to work in the same space where I relax, or vice versa? My pencil cup and laser printer might be telling me “it’s workin’ time!” while my cozy blanket and TiVo remote suggest “it’s playtime!”.

    It’s clearly important to keep these spaces – and their signals – better-defined. If I were moving in today, I think I would have divided the room up into a clear relaxing area and working area. Instead, I’ll be moving soon, and my first priority is a clear working area, a second bedroom that’s “work only” so I can “go to work” in the morning and have some sense of separation from the rest of my life – and when I’m done, a place I can leave and “come home” from.

    By the way, as a single guy, I often eat dinner on my sofa as well. Which may be why I’m always hungry when I’m working…

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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